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The Scientist

Cow Bathrooms to Save the Environment

Can cattle be potty trained?

Scientists from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany wanted to answer a simple question: Can you teach a cow to use a bathroom?

They had a good reason to try: when cow urine and cow pies are combined, ammonia is released. 90% of ammonia pollution comes from agriculture, and 50% of that is from cattle. Ammonia can leak into soil and water, changing the chemistry of both and causing issues from algal blooms to decreased biodiversity. If cows could be trained to use a "cow latrine," then this process could be significantly reduced. Further, this kind of training for a barn-housed cow can be seen as a cognitive enrichment activity - something for a cow to do to earn a reward and decrease boredom.

Researcher Jan Langbein describes the process for training cattle from calf to adult. Though the psychology of reward and repetition is similar to how someone might train a toddler, the process is quite different. Their results showed that eleven of the sixteen cows they trained had an 80% success rate for voiding in the latrine. Even those imperfect results, if applied in the real world, could have a significant effect on agricultural pollution.

The trick of course is making the process reproduceable and as simple as possible for farmers - taking it from hypothesis to practical application. For details, head over to The Scientist.